This is a debut novel by Tommy Orange, an enrolled member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes.
The book’s prologue gives us the context for the pain Indians inflict on themselves (alcoholism, suicide, drug addiction) and each other (domestic abuse, turf wars). Orange goes into horrific detail (the content of which I had never heard of before) about the treachery, sadistic cruelty, and grind-’em-down racism Indians suffered at the hands of the white colonizers from the time of the Pilgrims until the genocidal “Indian Wars” waged in the late eighteen hundreds.
The venue is contemporary Oakland, not a “rez”. Many Indians have left the rez behind and become “Urban Indians”. We get to meet more than a dozen of them close-up: Orvil Red Feather; Edwin Black; Tommy Loneman; Dene Oxendene; and the one with coolest name of all: Opal Viola Victoria Bear Shield. Each name heads a chapter (some more than one). Orange dexterously braids the lives of these Indians, and knots them all together in an ending that reflects their legacy. A legacy of both violence and spiritual depth.
As the narrative culminates, we witness a big Powow at the Oakland Coliseum. Hundreds of Indians from the Bay Area and beyond, dressed in Native Regalia, ready to dance to the sound of the big and little drums. Ready to dip, shuffle, and pound their feet against Mother Earth, while the singing counterpoints the beat of the drums; the beat of their feet.
This was the sound of pain forgetting itself in song, the author writes. In that sentence the beating heart of the story lies. And the author, Tommy Orange an Urban Indian for years, is part of that drumbeat. He has created this song of a book. A song of pain redeemed by his artistry.
We the witnesses, implicit in the oppression of his people; occupying what was their land; are given the opportunity to see more clearly and comprehensively the costs the Indian community has paid for our deeds. Tommy Orange has done his job. It is up to us to feel empathy, compassion, anger, guilt, whatever. And to see what we might do with our feelings and our new knowledge.
Frank Rubenfeld is a Berkeley psychologist who co-founded Psychotherapists for Social Responsibility and authored The Peace Manual: A Guide To Personal-Political Integration. He is an active member of the Gestalt Associates of the Bay Area.